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UC Berkeley, Toyo Ito and the architecture of lowered expectations*

November 25, 2009 |  5:00 pm

BAMExterior 

The latest piece of architecture to disappear into the economic abyss? It's Toyo Ito's remarkable design, above, for the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

Unveiled last year with some fanfare, Ito's plans for a new home for the museum, known as BAM, suggested a light, airy spin on the idea of the white-cube art gallery -- a series of spaces with their paper-thin walls curling in memorably on themselves, like stickers half-peeled from their backing.

The building was meant to replace BAM's current home along the south side of the UC Berkeley campus, a notable piece of architecture in its own right, by Mario Ciampi, that opened in 1970 and is plagued by seismic problems. Along with the crisp appeal of the Ito design -- the Tokyo-based architect's first project in the U.S. -- the big news of the plan was that it promised to deliver a university art museum and film center into the heart of downtown Berkeley, outside the campus proper.

Last week, though, the museum announced it was abandoning plans for the Ito building. The problem, not surprisingly, is money: Working toward a goal of $200 million -- a projected $143 million for construction, plus a comfortable cushion for cost overruns -- BAM had raised just $81 million. Instead it will explore more affordable opportunities at the downtown site, including retrofitting the printing plant that now occupies part of the property. It is possible, but unlikely, that Ito will be the architect for the retooled effort.

It's a huge disappointment for architecture fans that the original Ito design won't be built. At the same time, the episode raises questions -- questions now relevant in cities around the county -- about what happens when high-profile building projects are wounded but not killed by the poor economy, surviving to stumble forward without the big-name architects that helped them gain attention and ease their trips through the approvals process in the first place.

Shorn of momentum or their architectural headliners -- or both -- where do these projects go?

It's an issue in Brooklyn as developer Bruce Ratner clings to his dreams of building a staggeringly large mixed-use complex at the Atlantic Yards site -- but without Frank Gehry, his original architect. The Orange County Great Park, meanwhile, is keeping intact its design team, led by landscape architect Ken Smith, but has put on ice plans for a series of cultural buildings by New York architect Enrique Norten, among other attention-grabbing elements of the original design.

One thing that happens when the architectural klieg lights go out is that the real-estate logic that drove a project from the beginning becomes easier to discern -- and, potentially, to pick apart. Ratner's drive to persuade the state to use eminent-domain powers to clear his building sites -- however successful it has been legally or politically -- looks somehow more nakedly brazen without the protective armor of Gehry's diverting curves.

In Berkeley, there were mild concerns from the start that the university was using Ito as cover to distract the press from the real long-term issue the university cared about: executing a rather clever property swap. Those worries may still be somewhat overblown, but given recent news they deserve a second look.

Like most major universities, UC Berkeley has been expanding in recent years at a rapid clip, particularly along its edges, where it meets the city. (That pressure along the seams is produced in part by efforts to protect open space at the center of the campus, which was laid out in the early years of the 20th century by John Galen Howard.) And the university needs to expand further still. But putting a big research or classroom building in downtown Berkeley would have been a non-starter for a range of reasons.

Putting a museum at the downtown site, below, was an easier sell, particularly once Ito was recruited to design it. The move also promised to leave BAM's original location, along Bancroft Avenue, free for the kind of future development over which the university was likely to have relatively full control.

 BAMsite 

While the university says it has no interest in knocking down the Ciampi museum, its long-range development plan identifies the site as a potential spot for a new campus building.

Christine Shaff, a spokeswoman for UC Berkeley's facilities services division, said the university is considering a range of plans to reconfigure the Ciampi building, including as a student-activities complex or for art studios. Retrofitting it for continued use as a museum, according to Lawrence Rinder, BAM's director, would cost between $60 million and $80 million. 

Conveniently enough, the upper end of that range is almost exactly how much the BAM fund-raising campaign has so far gathered. That money was of course earmarked for the Ito building. But the degree in which those numbers match, combined with the architectural strengths of the powerfully unorthodox Ciampi building, below, may reopen the debate about whether it makes sense for the museum to move at all.

Bamciampi 

At the same time, it's worth keeping in mind that some of the most architecturally satisfying art-museum projects of the last two decades -- including Dia Beacon along the Hudson River and London's Tate Modern -- involve not building new museums from scratch but re-purposing industrial buildings for gallery use, as BAM is now considering. And moving the museum could certainly give a boost to downtown Berkeley, which continues to struggle with empty storefronts and unrealized ambitions.

When prominent building projects are downshifted into lower gear, as has happened in Berkeley, the toughest questions have to do with salesmanship and expectation. This is particularly true given the power of digitally-enhanced architectural renderings, which make dramatically clear what's to be gained by building a certain piece of architecture -- and what's to be lost by giving up on it.

For many in Berkeley, trading Ciampi for Ito seemed like a terrific deal, even as some suspected the university's motives were more complex than officials ever let on.

But trading Ciampi for an architect, and a design, to be named later? That's a tougher swap to get excited about, particularly with images of the doomed Ito proposal still dancing in our heads -- and across our computer screens.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

*Updated: An earlier version of this post said that museum is the northeastern edge of campus. It is actually on the south side.

Image credits: Rendering of now-abandoned plans by Toyo Ito for the Berkeley Art Museum, top, courtesy Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive. Photo montage of potential site of new BAM building in downtown Berkeley, center, courtesy BAM/PFA. Photograph of existing BAM building, bottom, by Ben Blackwell. 

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